From Fiji to Brazil, Fisherwomen Demand from the UN that their Voices be Heard

A fishing boat with a sunset
Lisbon, Portugal
From Fiji to Brazil, Fisherwomen Demand from the UN that their Voices be Heard

Marine fisheries generate 58.5 million jobs worldwide and provide the main source of protein for more than half of the population of developing countries. But, for fisherwomen from different countries, neither the United Nations nor local governments have listened to their demands when creating public policies to protect the environment, such as the one that provides for the conservation of 30% of the ocean by 2030, and for the development of the fishing sector with investments in small-scale fishing.

  • Watch the video here

That's why women like Lavenia Naivalu, from Fiji, and Martilene Rodrigues, from Brazil, decided to take their grievances to the UN Ocean Conference, which took place in Lisbon during the last week of June. Together with other fishermen and women, they organized side events to present the needs of their regions and sent a document with the demands to the UN.

Both fishermen and women said that the international community does not consider small-scale fishermen in its decisions.

"We are not being heard. We keep shouting, asking our governments for help, and what we hear is that we don't exist, that they don't recognize us, they don't recognize that we produce," said Martilene Rodrigues, a fisherwoman from Ceará who was one of the representative Brazilians at the events.

“These [UN] spaces are very cold, they are very hermetic. We are indigenous people, people who live by the sea, and we don't have the space to expose all this knowledge. States lock themselves into these international development capsules to protect the sea, but they do not see who the relevant actors are,” said Yohana Llancapani, a Chilean representative of the Walaywe coastal indigenous community in the south of the country.

Throughout the conference, the fisheries sector was highlighted in the discussions on ocean conservation because fishing can be both a threat to the environment and a sustainable alternative to stimulate the economy of the sea. The importance of the sector was boosted by the launch of the report 'The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022', by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), on Wednesday 29 June.

A group of people hold signs
Fishermen present a list of demands during an event parallel to the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon / Credit: Reproduction via CAOPA.

In the document, the UN recognized that the situation of women in the sector is even more vulnerable than that of men working in small-scale fisheries.

“While they occupy important roles in fisheries and aquaculture, women constitute a disproportionately large percentage of those engaged in informal, lower-paid, less stable and less-skilled work, and they often face gender barriers,” the UN said in the report.

A letter to the UN from small-scale fishers

A man throws a fishing net into water
A fisherman throws a cast net into the waters of Botafogo Beach, in Rio de Janeiro / Credit: Marcos Serra Lima. 

In an interview with G1, the head of the oceans and water department of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Andrew Hudson, also acknowledged that the role of these groups in the discussions needs to be expanded. “It's definitely a key issue that we continue to work on,” he said.

“Small-scale fisheries is such an important issue that it has its own target in the 2030 Agenda, which says that small-scale fisheries need help in two ways: better access to resources, that is, to fish, and to the consumer market. These fishers are at a disadvantage on both counts compared to industrial fishing,” Hudson explained.

In the letter sent to the UN at the end of the conference, the small-scale fishers said that they participated in “debates, meetings, side events, and even those that, because they were only in English, closed the doors" for many of them.

A bust conference room
Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa speaks during the closing session of the Ocean Conference 2022 in Lisbon, July 1, 2022. / Credit: Miguel Riopa via AFP.

After these meetings, they drafted the letter, in which they call for “the genuine participation of our communities in decisions that affect our lives, but also the health of the oceans and their food source.”

The group listed five other urgent requests: more access to marine resources, decent living and working conditions, direct access to a healthy and pollution-free ocean, the right to information and data about the seas and, finally, the right to advocate in their own voice, without donors or NGOs speaking on behalf of fishers when drawing up public policies for the sector.

Declining shoals

The world's population is consuming more aquatic foods than ever before – around 20.2 kg per capita in 2020 – more than double the consumption recorded 50 years ago, according to the State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 report. 

But the same report admits that the effects of climate change, such as rising ocean temperatures, have already brought "irreversible damage" that requires "urgent action".

According to Antónia Djaló, who represents a fishing community in Guinea-Bissau, the main effect that can already be seen in the sector is the scarcity of fish.

"If there is no fish, there is nothing. What is the population's diet? That is why governments, countries, must respect artisanal fishing. They employ people and bring benefits to the population," said Djaló.
A woman stands against a white brick wall
Antónia Djaló, who represents a fishing community from Guinea-Bissau, at the UN Ocean Conference / Credit: Patrícia Figueiredo. 

In West Africa, where the community of Djaló is located, you have to go farther and farther from the coast to find the shoals. Another problem in the region is the action of industrial fishing, operated by foreign companies at a pace far above what is sustainable.

According to a World Bank report, if there is no change in the current scenario of overfishing and climate change, the volume of fish available for consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be drastically reduced from 2030 onwards.

For the Chilean Yohana Llancapani, the lack of global policies means that predatory fishing practices in certain places also affect communities in other countries.

"The Earth is round and what I do in my territory will affect a brother from Kenya, a brother from Brazil, probably from many parts of the world, and governments are not interested," they said.
A woman stands against a blue wall
Yohana Llancapani, representative of the Walaywe coastal indigenous community, in southern Chile / Credit: Patrícia Figueiredo. 

Efforts by the international community to stimulate public policies for sustainable fisheries come amid a decline in fish stocks around the world.

According to the FAO report, only 64.4% of the shoals are at biologically sustainable levels, that is, in a sufficient number to guarantee the maintenance of the species. This number, verified in 2019, represents a drop of 1.2 percentage points compared to 2017.

The main cause of the reduction is, in addition to the overfishing promoted by ships of industrial scale, the increase in marine pollution and the mismanagement of marine resources, which includes the waste of species caught by mistake or in excess.

FAO estimates that the return of schools of species that have been overfished in recent years could increase world fisheries production by 16.5 million tons.

Nancy Onginjo, a fisherwoman from Seychelles present at the conference, argues that artisanal fisheries should not be held responsible for the negative effects of overfishing. "For generations, we've been able to conserve the ocean. It's the new activities that are causing problems," they said.

This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). It was first published in Portuguese in G1 on July 8, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A trawler at sunset / Credit: Arthur Goldstein via Unsplash.

By visiting EJN's site, you agree to the use of cookies, which are designed to improve your experience and are used for the purpose of analytics and personalization. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy

Related Stories